Business can be a grand adventure. There’s the risk and reward, sure—but there’s also a strong element of the unpredictable. Victoria Ransom ’99 and Alain Chuard ’99 have had an abundance of all three.

In the summer of 2012, these business and life partners sold their four-year-old Silicon Valley social media marketing company, Wildfire, for $450 million to Google. They couldn’t predict that their entrepreneurial travels would lead them to the Googleplex in Mountain View, Calif., but that openness to the unexpected may be a key reason why they’ve come so far.

Their life adventures started just getting to Macalester. Ransom, a native of rural New Zealand, earned a scholarship to study at the United World College in New Mexico; Macalester recruited her from there. Chuard, who grew up in Switzerland, snowboarded professionally for two years after high school before getting wind of Macalester and coming to St. Paul.

Upon graduation, Ransom and Chuard started out on “very traditional career paths,” says Ransom. She went to London to work as a business consultant, later taking a job with investment banking firm Morgan Stanley in New York; Chuard was employed in the same city and industry, toiling in Solomon Smith Barney’s mergers and acquisitions department. “After two years of investment banking, we realized that it wasn’t something we wanted to do long term,” Chuard says. “It was important to do something we were really passionate about.”

That passion was travel. They quit their banking jobs in 2001, headed to New Zealand, and started an adventure travel company that organized snowboarding and skiing trips to the south island of Ransom’s homeland; before long, Access Trips was running 40 tour packages in 18 countries. Within a few years, craving new challenges, the partners hired a manager to run Access Trips and headed to business school—Ransom to Harvard, Chuard to Stanford.

While in school, they got wind of Facebook’s launch of fan pages for businesses. Both saw a fan page as a demographically ideal venue for marketing Access Trips. They built one, and wondered how they could lure and keep people coming to it. They’d had success getting the word out about Access and building their mailing list by giving away trips on their website, and thought they could do likewise on Facebook.

That’s where they hit a roadblock: No application for converting fan pages into a more powerful marketing vehicle existed. So they created their own—a simple business decision that took Ransom and Chuard in an unexpected new direction. “We decided whilst solving our own needs to build a product that other businesses could use,” Ransom recalls. “We pretty quickly found that there was a lot of interest in that.”

In essence, their solution combines the kind of ads that appear on the right-hand side of the feed with links to sweepstakes, contests, and other campaigns—a simple concept, but one that had never been fully developed before. “When we started noticing that larger brands wanted to use the software, that’s when we saw that there was a real opportunity,” Chuard says. Gap, KFC, and professional sports teams became customers. Facebook itself signed up.

Ransom and Chuard

They had a new passion. In July 2008, he and Ransom left the travel business and kindled Wildfire in their living room. Chuard developed the original Wildfire application and managed product development; Ransom oversaw the business. “We were very disciplined and focused that we were going to be a technology company, not a service company,” Ransom says. “We could have easily turned into an agency”—that is, creating the fan pages rather than selling software—“which doesn’t scale as effectively and tends to have lower margins.

“We grew to 400 employees despite having raised a small amount of capital relative to other similarly sized startups,” she adds. “That was because we had a product that we were able to scale to a large user base without hiring and needing a large support team.” The partners point to another factor propelling their success. “We have talented, hardworking, smart, but humble people,” Chuard says. “And I think that really reflects who Victoria and I are. We’re all rowing in the same direction.”

Now Wildfire is riding the whitewater with Google. The search engine giant saw in Wildfire something it needed. “The world of marketing is changing,” Chuard says. “Everyone knows that Google is a strong player in the paid advertising, the digital advertising side. But as technology evolves and more and more users use social networks, tying content to ads becomes more and more important. We provide that social content platform that we’re hoping to integrate with Google’s advertising technology.”

That said, “I would say that we’re given a lot of autonomy,” says Ransom, who remains Wildfire’s CEO, while Chuard continues to manage product development. “We’re all still sitting together and in many respects, it’s just business as usual. We’re looking at ways to collaborate and really add to Google’s objectives and to scale our business through the relationships that Google has.”

Will Ransom and Chaurd continue to camp around Wildfire? For now, at least. The adventure continues.

GENE REBECK is a former senior editor of Twin Cities Business magazine. He lives in Duluth, Minn.

February 1 2013

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